Failure to stimulate toddlers’ brains could set them back for decades

Leading scientists and psychologists have warned that a lack of focus on pre-school learning can affect children's lives for decades. Figures show that almost 130,000 children a year are falling behind before they even reach primary school.

Jacob explores an interactive book at nursery.
Jacob explores an interactive book at a nursery in Lancashire.
 

Ten key figures in child development and neuroscience have joined with Save the Children to urge the government to focus on early years education.

Together, we’re calling for every nursery to have a qualified early years teacher to support children with early learning, after identifying these years as a ‘lightbulb moment’ for children.

This call is backed up by 'Lighting Up Young Brains', a new scientific briefing from Save the Children and the Institute of Child Health at University College London. In it, neuroscientists explain how toddlers’ brains form connections at double the rate of adults’.

Far-reaching consequences

This makes children’s early years a critical time for the brain to develop key skills such as speech and language.

But many parents don’t realise the significance of their children’s pre-school years as a period of brain development. A poll we commissioned as part of the Read On. Get On. campaign, showed that 61% of parents thought school was the most important learning period for children.

Failure to develop adequate language skills can leave children struggling to learn in the classroom and unable to catch up – with consequences that can last decades.

Experts say toddlers’ brains form connections twice as fast as adults’, making children’s early years a critical time for brain development.
 

More must be done

Professor Torsten Baldeweg, Professor of Neuroscience and Child Health at the Institute of Child Health, says children’s early years are “absolutely critical”, and that “much more must be done to boost children’s early learning.”

He explains: “It is precisely this period where we have explosive brain growth, where most of the connections in the brain are formed... And we know that if these connections are not formed [children], to variable degrees, will suffer longer term consequences to their physical, cognitive but also emotional development.”

Last year, almost 130,000 children in England struggled with their early language skills. That’s the equivalent of six children in every reception class, or every five-year-old pupil in London, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle combined.

More than half of parents and two-thirds of dads said they didn’t get enough help and advice to understand their child’s early learning. And 47% of parents said they hoped their children would know 100 words by their third birthday – half as many as the government recommends.

Challenging misconceptions

Gareth Jenkins, director of Save the Children’s UK poverty work, says: “Toddler’s brains are like sponges, absorbing knowledge and making new connections faster than at any other time in life. We’ve got to challenge the misconception that learning can wait for school, as, if a child starts their first day at school behind, they tend to stay behind.

“To tackle the nation’s education gap, we need a new national focus on early learning to give children the best start – not just increasing free childcare hours, but boosting nursery quality to help support children and parents with early learning.”

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